Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback (11 page)

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
5.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

When I was a child, fairy tales were not for the faint of heart.

My mother used to read to us from this massive book with a

horned demon dude on the cover. Readers and writers are partners

in story, and my fertile imagination contributed horrifyingly vivid

details. Thus twisted (thanks, Mom!) I grew up to write two best-

selling teen fantasy series: The Heir Chronicles (
The Warrior Heir
The Wizard Heir
The Dragon Heir, The Enchanter Heir)
; and the Seven Realms series (
The Demon King, The Exiled Queen,
The Gray
Wolf Throne, The Crimson Crown

“Warrior Dreams” is set in the gritty industrial landscape of the

Cleveland Flats, where the crooked Cuyahoga River meets Lake Erie.

The Lake Erie region boasts a rich folkloric tradition, rife with water monsters such as nixies and grindylows; zombie-like Wendigos;

storm hags, ominous black dogs and the feared Nain Rouge—the

Red Dwarf of Detroit. Some elements have been transplanted from

the Old World, some are home-grown.

I love to marry contemporary issues (e.g., our [lack of] treatment

of wounded warriors) with fantasy elements and unexpected settings.

I’ve discovered I can get away with a lot in a fairy tale.

Cinda Williams Chima

• 93 •

Warrior Dreams

Cinda Williams Chima

Russell’s new home under the abandoned railroad bridge was

defensible, which was always the first priority. Secluded, yet

convenient to the soup kitchens downtown. It offered a dry, flat place for his sleeping bag, and some previous occupant had even built a

fire ring out of the larger rocks.

The bridge deck kept the snow and sleet off, and because the

bridge wasn’t in use, he didn’t have to deal with the rattle-bang of trains. Any kind of noise still awakened the Warrior—the dude born

in Kunar Province, in Korengal, in the Swat Valley—even in places

like Waziristan, where he never officially was. Any sudden noise left him sweating, heart pounding, fueled by an adrenaline rush that

wouldn’t dissipate for hours.

Best of all, the bridge was made of iron—a virtual fortress of iron, in fact, which should’ve been enough to win him a little peace. That and the bottle of Four Roses Yellow Label he’d bought with the last

of this month’s check.

But Russell was finding that, for an out-of-the-way place, his new

crib on Canal Street was in a high-traffic area for magical creatures.

The river was swarming with shellycoats—he heard the soft chiming

of their bells all day long. Kappas lurked around the pillars of the bridge, poking their greenish noses out of the water, watching for

unwary children. The carcasses of ashrays washed up on shore,

disintegrating as soon as the sunlight hit them.

• 95 •

• Warrior Dreams •

Where were they all coming from? Was there some kind of

paranormal convention going on and nobody told him?

The first night, he’d awakened to the adrenaline rush and a pair of

red fur boots, inches from his nose.

“Hey!” Russell said, rolling out of danger and grabbing up the

iron bar he always kept close. The creature screeched and scrambled

backwards, out of range. It was the size of a small child, with a long beard, burning coal eyes, and a ratty red and black fur coat. Like a garden gnome out of a nightmare.

“Listen up, gnomeling,” Russell said, “you sneak up on a person,

you’re liable to get clobbered.”

The creature struck a kind of pose, lips drawn back from rotten

teeth, one hand extended toward Russell.

“Je suis le Nain Rouge de Detroit,” it began.

Russell shook his head. “En Anglais, s’il vous plait. Je ne parle pas Francais.”

It scratched its matted beard. “You just did.”

“Did what?”

“Spoke French.”

“Maybe,” Russell said, “but now I’m done.” He leaned back against

a bridge pillar and lit a cigarette with shaking hands. At one time, he’d been fluent in five languages, but he’d forgotten a lot since the magic thing began.

The gnomeling let go a sigh of disgust. “I am the Red Dwarf of

Detroit,” it repeated. “Harbinger of doom and disaster.”

“I hate to break it to you,” Russell said. “But this isn’t Detroit. It’s Cleveland. Detroit’s a little more to the left.” He pointed with his cigarette. “Just follow the lake, you can’t miss it.”

The dwarf shook his head. “I may be the Red Dwarf of Detroit,

but my message is for you.” And then it disappeared.

Way to ruin a good night’s sleep.

The second night, it was the dog. Russell woke to find it snuggled

next to him, its huge, furry body like a furnace against his sleeping bag. He nearly strangled it before he realized what it was. He was

• 96 •

• Cinda Williams Chima •

definitely losing his edge. No way any animal that size should’ve

been able to sneak up on him

“Hey,” Russell said, sitting up. “Where’d you come from?” After

holding out his hand for a sniff, he scratched the beast behind the

ears. It was immense, probably a Newfoundland, or a mix of that and

something else.

Russell liked dogs. They accepted a wide range of behavior without

question, and they believed in magic, too.

The next morning, Russell shared his meager gleanings from the

dumpster behind the Collision Bend Café, and the dog elected to

stay with him another night. Russell’s rule was, if a dog stays two

nights, it gets a name.

“Is it all right if I call you Roy?” Russell asked. The dog didn’t

object, so Roy it was. That night Russell fell asleep, secure in the belief that old Roy had his back.

He awoke to six nixies tugging on his toes with their sinuous

fingers. Yanking his feet free, he said, “Ixnay, nixies.”

They swarmed back into the water and commenced to squabbling

about what, if anything, they should do with him.

“He sees us!”

“He will tell!”

“We must drown him!”

“Some watchdog you are,” Russell said, glaring at Roy. The Newfie

stretched, shook out his long black coat, and trotted off to anoint the bridge for the hundredth time.

After shooing away the nixies, Russell kindled a fire. He hadn’t

lost the knack since he’d been chaptered out of the Army. Like

riding a goddamn bike. He curled up and tried to go back to sleep,

but he couldn’t shake a sense of imminent danger. The nixies kept

muttering, and that didn’t help. He tossed and turned so much that

Roy growled, got up, and found a spot on the other side of the fire.

It was no use. Russell sat up. As he did so, the wind stung his face, bringing with it the stench of rotten flesh.

Stick with Lieutenant MacNeely. It’s like he can smell danger.

• 97 •

• Warrior Dreams •

He searched the embankment that ran down to the water. There.

He caught a flicker of movement along the riverbank. The lights

from the bridge reflected off a pair of eyes peering out of a tangle of frozen weeds. The eyes disappeared and the weeds shifted and shook,

a ribbon of motion coming toward him. Something was creeping

closer, stalking him. Something big. Was it plotting with the nixies or was it here on its own?

Warrior Russell planted his feet under him, reached down and

gripped his trusty iron bar.

Know your weapon

You are the weapon.

With a roar, the creature burst from the underbrush, its claws

clattering over the concrete as it bounded forward. It was incredibly tall, cadaverously thin, with long, snarled hair. Coming to his knees, Russell waited until it was nearly on top of him, then jack-knifed

upward, swinging his iron bar, slamming it into the creature in mid-

air. It screamed, a sound as lonely as a train whistle at night. Then burst into shards of ice that rained down on the riverbank until it

looked like his campsite had been hit by a localized hailstorm.

“What the hell was that?” Russell muttered, brushing slush off his


The nixies looked at each other, chattering excitedly, pointing at

Russel . One of them slipped beneath the river’s surface and disappeared.

“Where’d she go?” Russell demanded, glaring at them. He stood,

cradling the iron bar. “If she went for reinforcements, well, then bring it. I’m Russell G. MacNeely, and I’m not giving up this crib.”

The nixie reappeared a few minutes later, with reinforcements.

A reinforcement, rather. The newcomer—a girl—surfaced with

scarcely a ripple, regarding Russell with luminous green eyes. Her

skin was ashy white, with just a hint of blue, and her long red hair was caught into a braid just past her shoulders.

She raised one pale hand, and waved at him, a tentative flutter of

fingers. Russell waved back.

She flinched back, eyes wide. “So you
see us.”

• 98 •

• Cinda Williams Chima •

“I’ll pretend I can’t, if that makes you feel better,” Russell said. “I’m used to it. It helps me fit in better in the world.”

“You killed the Wendigo,” she said, her voice the sound of moving

water over stone.“I’m impressed. They aren’t easy to kill, one on one.”

“I killed the

She scooped up a handful of ice. Tilting her hand, she let it fall,

glittering in the lights from the bridge, clattering on the concrete.

“Uh, right. Wendigo,” Russell said. “Don’t they usually hang out

further north?”

“Usually,” she said, with a sigh. “Not these days.” Sweeping bits of ice out of the way, she boosted herself onto the bank. She wore a

skimpy dress of what looked like seaweed, and a necklace of water

lilies and fresh-water mussel shells. She was sleek and fit, her arms and legs well-muscled, as if she worked out. Though her skin was

pale as permafrost, she was probably the loveliest thing Russell had ever seen.

Just stop it. You always get like this when you’re off your meds.

There’s just no point in that kind of thinking for someone like you.

Truth be told, he hated being on meds. He hated living in a black-

and-white world, blinders over his eyes, cotton stuffed in his ears.

Sleepwalking. Sitting at the bottom of a well of sadness, unable to

climb out.

He needed to stay alert. He needed to be able to defend himself.

I am not a violent person, but I will defend myself.

“I’m Russell, by the way,” he said. No reason he couldn’t be friendly.

“I’m Laurel,” she said. With nimble fingers, she unraveled her

braid. Then rewove it—tighter.

Russell cast about for something else to say. “Um—you’re not

as green as most nixies,” he said, hoping that would be taken for a


She shook her head. “I’m not a nixie. I’m a kelpie.” She’d been

focused on her braid, but now she raised her eyes to Russell’s face, as if to assess his reaction. “A limnades kelpie, to be specific.”

The word was familiar, but all he could think of was seaweed.

• 99 •

• Warrior Dreams •

Kelp. The other Russell—the pre-deployment Russell—would have

known. The other Russell was good with words.

“Nixies, kelpies—what’s the difference?”

“I’m a shape-shifter,” Laurel said.

Ah, Russell thought. A shape-shifter. In the years since the TBI,

he’d become familiar with many magical creatures, but there always

seemed to be more to learn.

“And a warrior,” she added. “I’m the last remaining guardian of

the lakes.”

“A warrior.” Russell resisted the temptation to roll his eyes, and bit the insides of his cheeks to keep from smiling. A small victory for the old social filters. And the new role of women in combat.

“The nixies are debating whether to kill you.” She said this matter-

of-factly, like she was interested in Russell’s opinion on it.

“I’d like to see them try.” Russell scooped up the iron bar and

rested it across his knees. “I’m not a violent person, but I will defend myself.”

He’d said that, over and over, in therapy.

Laurel watched him handle the iron staff with something like

jealousy. “I can see that you have some skill with weapons,” she said.

“I should,” Russell said. “That used to be my job. Killing people.”

When Laurel’s eyes narrowed, he added, “Don’t worry. I only killed

the bad guys—or at least that’s what I thought. Then I got RFS’d out of the Rangers for misconduct, along with a bad case of TBI and


“You sure have a lot of letters,” Laurel observed.

“My point is, I’m not considered competent. So nobody is going to

believe a thing I say. Your secrets are safe with me.”

Laurel cocked her head. “What is this ‘TBI’ and ‘PTSD’?”

“I got blown up a lot when I was in the military,” Russell said,

stretching out the kinks in his back. “So now, my brain doesn’t work like other people’s. For instance, I can see and hear you. No offense, but that ain’t normal in my world, so I’m crazy. They claim I was

crazy before I enlisted. Not their fault.”

• 100 •

• Cinda Williams Chima •

She thought about this for a moment. “I can see and hear
,” she pointed out.

“I didn’t make the rules,” Russell said. “Anyway, what are you

doing so far upriver? You’re surrounded by steel mills, and it’s all iron bridges and what-not. Your kind don’t tolerate iron, right? You’re

gonna make yourself sick.”

“It wasn’t our idea,” Laurel said, “We’ve been forced into the rivers, because the lake is no longer safe. But, you’re right—we can’t survive here for long. The rivers are cleaner than they used to be, but still not healthy enough to live in permanently. Plus, as you said, there’s the metal.”

BOOK: Once Upon a Time: New Fairy Tales Paperback
5.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Eye of Neptune by Jon Mayhew
Dead and Beloved by McHenry, Jamie
Out Of The Ashes (The Ending Series, #3) by Lindsey Fairleigh, Lindsey Pogue
Inventing Iron Man by E. Paul Zehr
Memorizing You by Skinner, Dan
A Creed for the Third Millennium by Colleen McCullough
Broken: A Plague Journal by Hughes, Paul
Farewell to the East End by Jennifer Worth
Snow Angel by Chantilly White